The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sent to live with her grandmother (Eileen Colgan) and grandfather (Dave Duffy) in a coastal village in order to avoid inhaling toxic fumes in the city, Fiona (Jeni Courtney) is captured by stories of a nearby island right across her new home. It is called Roan Inish, meaning “Island of the Seals,” and it is where her ancestors have resided until their very recent migration inland. On the way to her grandparents’ house, Fiona notices a young seal watching her, as if it knows something she does not.
Adapted to the screen and directed by John Sayles, the experience of watching “The Secret of Roan Inish” is like looking through a thick fog and trying to make sense of the shadows moving about behind it. It offers culture, imagination, and mystery—all combined in a stew of adventures of possible hidden meanings as a little girl, like us, tries to make sense between a truth, or many truths, and a myth. The film captures our curiosity early on.
It makes the case that perhaps fact and fiction are a part of one another’s fabric, that trying to demystify—rather than embracing—them is a waste of time. Fiona chooses the latter and we imagine her becoming an active participant of stories to be told long after her life has run its course. The story is told beautifully.
A most wondrous section in the picture involves a mysterious “dark one” telling Fiona a story about a selkie—a half-man, half-seal creature who is supposedly a part of their bloodline. On one hand, we can see the story for what it is: a female seal being able to shed its rubbery skin, underneath it hiding human flesh. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as a story of a village who are not used to seeing outsiders, let alone one choosing to live with them. Either way, it makes for a compelling look at a specific people in a specific place with a specific way of life and therefore a specific mindset.
Even when a character is telling a story and there are no images to accompany it, the film remains strong. The voice, intonations, pauses, and facial expressions of the storyteller are so alive that we cannot help but paint a picture in our minds. Thus, the film is able to tell a story using the media as is as well as one that takes place in our minds. Not many movies even strive to function on such a level, let alone being one that truly works.
Based on a novel by Rosalie K. Fry, “The Secret of Roan Inish” is perfect for children with active imaginations and adults who maintain a child-like wonder. Although it contains many images of nature and animals, it never preaches about the environment or sets any kind of agenda. Its goal is to take the audience through a story and then perhaps make us think about what we have just seen. The way we choose to describe the story to the next person is up in the air.